If I were Prime Minister: Britain would take in hundreds more Syrian refugees

Our series in the run-up to the General Election – 100 days, 100 contributors, but no politicians – continues with the Director of Amnesty International UK

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The Independent Online

As Prime Minister, here are a few of the topics I’d be prioritising.

First, Syria, the biggest humanitarian crisis of our times. Why is the UK refusing to take no more than a handful of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees when countries like Germany have committed to taking thousands? Britain has been good at funding refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon but it could and should do more. This is one of the biggest refugee emergencies since the Second World War.

Likewise, under my prime ministership Britain would end its scandalous insistence that we shouldn’t have search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean because this acts as a supposed “pull factor” for desperate refugees and migrants. The consequence of this cruel - and unfounded - stance can be seen almost daily: dead men, women and children dragged out of the sea or washed up on Europe’s beaches.

Human rights matter as much at home as they do abroad and getting our own house in order will repair our battered reputation as a country based on fairness and the rule of law - still one of our greatest assets. Here we need to stop the infantile attacks on the Human Rights Act, on the European Court of Human Rights and indeed on the whole concept of basic rights for all.

In this, Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary year, I would ensure that the message of universal rights would reverberate around the country. In our schools there would be wider teaching of civic rights and the history of freedom struggles. People like Gerard Winstanley, William Wilberforce and Emily Pankhurst would take their place alongside Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Malala Yousafzai as some of the world’s most inspirational figures.


Britain should be leading by example, doing rather than just saying. While past prime ministers have paid lip-service to the rule of law, free speech and to opposing evils like torture and unfair imprisonment, as Prime Minister I’d see that my government took action.

We would reverse restrictions on legal aid and perfectly proper campaigning from charities and groups like Amnesty. The detention of asylum-seekers would become a thing of the past in this country in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. And dark allegations of the UK’s complicity in rendition and torture during the “war on terror” would be thoroughly investigated by a judge-led inquiry, not a committee which is answerable to the Prime Minister (I’d happily relinquish this dubious right of veto).

For too long we’ve been a country where ministers are wont to airily claim that Britain is “world class” at this or “leading the world” at that, while the reality has nearly always been altogether grubbier and soiled with compromise. I’d want to lead a government that can genuinely hold its head on high on human rights.